Monday, August 21, 2006

Who is to Blame: Minaya or the Wilpons?

Last year, before the start of the 2005 Major League Baseball season, I had a friendly disagreement with an acquaintance from my sons’ little league program. We are both Mets fans, but we had the exact opposite take on the Mets recent acquisitions—Beltran and Martinez.

My take was that the Mets finally got it right by acquiring Beltran, who was a five-tool player just entering his prime, and signing him to a long-term, albeit pricey, contract. At the time Beltran had just given one of the most remarkable performances in MLB playoff history and almost single-handedly carried the Astros to the World Series. My only concern was that he was willing to sign with the Yankees for much less than the Mets had offered and I wondered whether he wanted to play for the Mets at all. My friend’s take was that the contract was just too big. I don’t think he discounted Beltran’s abilities, but he didn’t like the dollar amount of the contract.

At the time, I had also read that Pedro Martinez, a pitcher acknowledged by practically everyone to be past his prime, had a tear in the labrum of his pitching shoulder. The article explained that it wasn’t anything to be concerned about because Pedro had been pitching with the tear for some time. My view was that it was one thing to pitch with an injury when you are 29-years old and quite another when you are 34. My acquaintance’s view was simply that he was Pedro, a future Hall of Famer.

The Mets had to offer Pedro a four-year deal or else he would have re-signed with Boston, his preferred team. I felt that the Mets would be lucky to get two good years out of Pedro, but beyond that it was the Wilpons’ money to throw away. Although there is no salary cap in baseball, the Wilpons have been known to get tight fisted, especially right after they make bad, expensive deals. The thing I worried about was blowback in years three or four of the Martinez contract with the Mets sitting on their hands when it came time to sign talented players.

I’ll have to admit that in 2005 my acquaintance’s take looked a lot better than mine. Although I was one of the few Mets fans who saw the value that Beltran delivered in 2005, superficially at least, Martinez looked like the better signing in 2005. Beltran played hurt last year without complaint and did many of the little things to help the team win, but his numbers were not what most fans expected. They booed Beltran mercilessly. But, player acquisitions should never be judged in their first year, especially when it is the first of four for an old pitcher with a lot of mileage or the first of several for a young player just reaching his prime.

Now it is 2006 and Martinez has not even been able to give the Mets the two good years that I thought he could. He has had two stints on the DL this year and he has lost his fastball. He started out quickly with five wins in five starts but it has been all down hill ever since. To his credit, he is a pitcher, and he has used his guile to get batters out despite losing his velocity. In one sequence of pitches in his last game he struck out a batter who was late on a 77-mile per hour fastball. How can a major league hitter be late on a 77-mile an hour fastball you ask? Pedro had set him up with a few 72-mile per hour changeups. But, you need more than guile in October.

So, here we are in August and the Mets are running away with their division thanks to the play of Beltran and Wright—who are likely to split the New York MVP vote and allow Pujols, Howard or Berkman to take the NL MVP trophy—and the cast of Reyes, LoDuca, Delgado, Martinez, Glavine, Trachsel, and Wagner, and others who have played well as a team. But, the Mets are in big trouble.

When the top of your rotation is 34-years old or older and you give away solid young pitchers like Kris Benson, a legitimate number three starter, for practically nothing, you are only asking for trouble. Tom Glavine might never pitch in another game because of a blood clot in his shoulder. In all likelihood Pedro will never even get close to the pitcher he was even as late as 2004. And, now that Omar Minaya realizes how bad it looks, he is in full “cover-your-ass” mode and has contrived that he traded away Benson to stockpile pitchers for situations like these. What?! Here is how describes Minaya’s view:

"That was the original plan all along," said Minaya. "I'm big on pitching and you always want to have numbers in pitching."

Minaya said the Jan. 21 trade in which the Mets acquired John Maine and Jorge Julio for Kris Benson is an example of improving the club through the numbers equation. The Mets subsequently traded Julio for Orlando Hernandez.

"Obviously, you don't plan on having some of your younger guys get hurt, but by having more pitchers available, then you can handle the injuries that transpire," Minaya said.

Minaya is actually saying that he was planning for all of these pitching injuries by trading away a terrific young starting pitcher to help him stockpile other pitchers. Okay, let’s look at what he did: He traded Benson for John Maine and Jorge Julio. Maine is a rookie who has been hot and cold, but is certainly not someone the Mets could count on in October. Julio was a complete bust and Minaya dumped him for Orlando Hernandez, whom the Rockies were only too happy to dump themselves. To portray the Benson trade as Benson for two guys currently in the Mets starting rotation is absurd. The Mets could have gotten Hernandez for practically anything as the Julio trade proved. They didn’t need to trade Benson to get him.

The Mets could be playing with a rotation of Benson, Hernandez, and Trachsel and at least have a fighting chance to win the National League pennant. But if Martinez cannot find his fastball—or even get off the DL—and if Glavine can’t pitch again this year, the Mets will be lucky to beat the Reds in the Division round of the Playoffs.

I am not writing this simply to bash Minaya because he is certainly an improvement over Phillips and Duquette, but he is not the genius that many make him out to be. He blew the Delgado negotiations last year by sending a Hispanic assistant who tried to con Delgado into signing by leveraging their common heritage. Delgado was so turned off by it that he signed with the Marlins for less.

In virtually every other move—from Martinez to Beltran—he relied on the Wilpons to open their wallet. At best, Minaya has done a better job simply because he got the Wilpons to spend their money and because he wasn’t the guy who traded Kazmir.

At worst, Minaya is the guy who traded the two most precious assets that a Major League team covets, namely high-quality, young, starting pitchers (Benson) and gold glove centerfielders with power (Mike Cameron) for little in return.

I have already written about Benson, but did you know that in the last ten years including 1996 there have been ten different centerfielders who have won a gold glove in MLB? Out of those ten, only six have ever hit thirty or more home runs in a season and Cameron was one of those six. So, who did the Mets get in return for Cameron, the precious asset that every team covets? Xavier Nady, a part-time rightfielder. Nady was a solid player, but he wasn’t a precious asset. In fact, the Mets thought so little of Nady that they quickly traded him for a 40-year old set-up reliever who is on borrowed time.

And, what are the Mets trying to acquire at the moment? Starting pitching and a good defensive outfielder with some pop, of course.

So, no, Minaya is no genius. He deserves credit for signing Beltran, but that just showed he had an ability to get the Wilpons to open their wallet in 2005. This year is a different story. I would much rather have heard Minaya say what I think is the truth. Namely, that the Wilpons told him he had to dump salary if he wanted to take on Delgado’s contract. That is the only thing about the Benson and Cameron trades that makes any sense to me. Then, Mets fans could focus their blame on the Wilpons, who have repeatedly shown they lack the will to put a championship team on the field. Despite the fact that I completely buy the “Moneyball” philosophy, there is no excuse for lacking that will in a major market like New York.


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